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Stamkos is the favorite to make jump to stardom

by Dan Rosen /
Vancouver's top brass knew Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows had the potential to be special. However, their talents didn't materialize on the ice until last season, when both produced in a big way.

Kesler improved by 18 points to a career-high of 56, he was a finalist for the Selke Trophy and he'll be at Team USA's Olympic orientation camp later this month. Burrows scored a career-high 28 goals, 16 better than his previous high-water mark. He didn't earn an invite to Team Canada's Olympic orientation camp, but he's on executive director Steve Yzerman's watch list.

Boston's Phil Kessel is another example of a player who had a breakout season in 2008-09. The former first-round pick went from 11 goals as a rookie to 19 as a sophomore before nearly doubling that total with 36 goals in 70 games last season.

Who will be this year's breakout players? Here are's Top 10 candidates:

1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay -- The No. 1 pick in the 2008 Entry Draft put together a solid second half to his rookie season after a rough first half. He had 19 points in his final 20 games and 32 over the final 40. Count on Stamkos carrying that production into his sophomore season and stretching it out over the course of a full season.

2. Jack Johnson, Los Angeles -- As the Kings improve, so should Johnson, who is a minus-42 in 120 NHL games. The No. 3 pick in the 2005 Entry Draft has offensive potential -- 11 points in 41 games last season -- but the Kings expect Johnson to be much better in his own zone this season. He should be with two full NHL seasons of experience behind him.

3. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia -- The one-time QMJHL scoring leader came on in a big way at the end of last season, finishing with 27 points in 42 games. He can play wing or center, which gives coach John Stevens options. With Mike Knuble and Joffrey Lupul out of the mix, the Flyers are counting on Giroux's offensive production.

4. Ryan Callahan, N.Y. Rangers -- The speedy winger is one of coach John Tortorella's favorites. He plays a gritty, straight-line, no-nonsense game, goes hard into the corners and dashes to the front of the net. Callahan put up 22 goals last season and has the capabilities to do more. He's one of the Rangers' most humble players, but also one of their most important.

5. Valtteri Filppula, Detroit -- The Wings believe all that held Filppula back from a breakout season in '08-09 was his place on the depth chart. Then again, he notched 16 points in 23 playoff games despite not having a top-six role. With Marian Hossa (and possibly Jiri Hudler) gone, Filppula will be playing with better players (Johan Franzen? Henrik Zetterberg? Pavel Datsyuk?). His stats should soar along with his responsibilities.

6. Erik Johnson, St. Louis -- He may be a year behind after missing last season with a knee injury, but Johnson is capable of catching up quickly. He had 33 points in 69 games as a rookie in 2007-08 and claims he's now 100 percent healthy. The Blues are happy to get his speed, physicality and puck-moving ability back.

7. Derick Brassard, Columbus -- Brassard will get the chance to be the No. 1 center Columbus never has had. Look for him to start the season between Rick Nash and Kristian Huselius, and if he has an impact there he could put up 60-70 points. He had 25 points in 31 games last season before going down with a season-ending shoulder injury in December.

8. Kyle Okposo, N.Y. Islanders -- All the talk on the Island is about 2009 No. 1 pick John Tavares, but Okposo could earn himself a spot on the U.S. Olympic team with a strong start. He was the Isles' best player in the second half of last season, finishing with a team-high 18 goals, and the Isles are counting on him putting it together for 82 games.

9. James Sheppard, Minnesota -- Was Sheppard hamstrung by former coach Jacques Lemaire's system? Or is he just never going to be the prolific scorer in the NHL that he was in the QMJHL? We should find out, considering new coach Todd Richards will give Sheppard more freedom in the offensive end and thus a better chance to be a prolific scorer again.

10. Sam Gagner, Edmonton -- He was better than expected as an 18-year-old rookie in 2007-08, but didn't improve the way the Oilers were hoping last season. However, the son of former NHL forward Dave Gagner doesn't even turn 20 until Aug. 16, and he did put up 21 points in his last 20 games.

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